Story: Ambulance services

Page 1. Development of ambulance services

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The growth of ambulance services is linked to the development of hospitals. In the mid-19th century, most people who had family or money were nursed at home and attended by the local doctor. ‘Colonial hospitals’, which cared for Māori and poor Pākehā, were set up in Auckland, Wellington, New Plymouth and Whanganui between 1848 and 1850. Increased demand for qualified health care led to the establishment of 38 general hospitals around the country by 1883. More were set up under local-body control after the Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act 1885.

Getting to hospital

People with serious illnesses or injuries got to hospital for treatment by whatever means they could. Trains were fastest and most reliable, but people were also brought along rough roads by horse and cart or sledge.

Some hospitals bought their own horse-drawn ambulance – Palmerston North had one by 1901, Waikato by 1908, and Whanganui by 1912. Patients usually had to pay for both hospital care and ambulance transport.

Smaller hospitals such as Coromandel’s Mercury Bay Hospital had more basic services: for many years the ambulance was a handcart parked on the front verandah of the Whitianga Hotel. In an emergency the nearby Mercury Bay Timber Company mill whistle was blown to summon help. If there was a timber-cutting accident in the bush, relays of men carried the patient out on a makeshift sacking stretcher.

Travel torture

Around the time of the First World War, sick or injured people from Ōtorohanga were sent to Waikato Hospital on the early-morning train. A patient would be trundled from Frankton Station to Hamilton Lake on a luggage trolley. A house surgeon would be waiting at the water’s edge to row the new arrival across the lake to the hospital.

St John ambulance

The Order of St John had been active throughout New Zealand since 1885, teaching first aid and home nursing in small towns with scant medical services. In 1892 the first St John ambulance brigade was formed in Dunedin, providing a free transport service to patients in emergencies.

More brigades, consisting of volunteer drivers and first aiders, were gradually set up around the country. Often St John had contracts with hospital boards. The board continued to own and maintain the ambulances, which by the 1920s were motorised. More ambulances became available after the First World War, when the Defence Department lent its surplus field ambulances to hospital boards.

Although St John brigades came to dominate ambulance services in the 20th century, some hospitals continued to run their own ambulances. And in isolated districts without ambulances, people still travelled to hospital in cars or taxis, or on the back of trucks.

Wellington Free Ambulance

The need for a better emergency system in Wellington led to the establishment of the Wellington Free Ambulance in 1927. Its main advocate, Wellington mayor Charles Norwood, had been shocked to see an injured man lying beside the road, unable to be shifted because there was no hospital ambulance available. As well as helping to found the Wellington Free Ambulance, Norwood, a well-known car-assembly industrialist, donated vehicles to the fleet.

Calling the ambulance

In the days of manual telephone exchanges, people needing an ambulance simply asked the operator, who would connect them with the local brigade. When automatic exchanges were introduced in the 1950s, people had to either know the local ambulance station number or look it up in the telephone book, losing crucial time.

The 111 number for calling all emergency services was introduced in 1958 in Masterton, and slowly spread to other parts of the country. 111 calls were automatically switched to a local staffed exchange, where an operator transferred the call to the appropriate service. The system could be unreliable – for instance if the exchange was only staffed by one person, who might be temporarily absent.

Take out or take in?

In Whangamatā between 1985 and 1988 the job of answering 111 calls was shared between several local people. The calls were transferred to their homes or businesses. One man ran a takeaway bar, and would answer the phone not knowing whether the caller wanted fish and chips or an ambulance.

Air ambulance services

From the 1950s air ambulance services using fixed-wing aircraft transferred critically ill patients in remote areas to larger hospitals. For example, the Kaitāia aero club operated an air ambulance from 1952 – first using a Fox Moth aeroplane and then a twin-engined Dominie.

By the late 1980s there were rescue helicopters. They could land where fixed-wing aircraft could not, so they were useful not just for hospital transfers, but for attending motor and other accidents and taking injured people to hospital much faster than a road ambulance could.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Ambulance services - Development of ambulance services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 January 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 11 Mar 2010